Allan Massie: Pack and try-scoring backs level playing field

England's Owen Farrell. Picture: PA

England's Owen Farrell. Picture: PA

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Honesty compels one to confess that we usually approach the Calcutta Cup more in hope than expectation. It is easy to say that the past counts for nothing and statistics are irrelevant. Nevertheless, knowledge of repeated failure weighs heavily and so one tends to think that, even at Murrayfield, we have to catch England on an off-day if we are to have a real chance of winning.

Yet there are reasons to think that the odds today should be even. This is only partly because of what happened in the World Cup. England had a miserable tournament, Scotland an encouraging one. Yet a neutral observer might say that England weren’t half as bad a team as their results indicated and Scotland not quite as good a one as our agonisingly close last-minute loss to Australia allowed us to believe.

Eddie Jones’s first England team is much like Stuart Lancaster’s one. Scotland start with 13 of the players who lined up against Australia, and the changes – Matt Scott for Peter Horne and John Barclay for Blair Cowan – can’t be said to weaken it. Both sides are experienced, England with 512 caps, Scotland with 495. Not much difference there, and 308 of the Scotland caps are in the pack. Jonny Gray may still look as if he doesn’t need to shave, but he already has 19 caps and last season made more tackles 
than anyone in the Six Nations. John 
Hardie is one of only two tournament debutants in either XV, but nobody would call the former Hurricanes 7 a novice. Nor, indeed, is the other, the 
formidable WP Nel.

The intensity of rugby today is such that clubs need to practise rotation, but international sides require continuity. They always have. When Scotland won the Grand Slam in 1984 Jim Telfer called on only 18 players, the three changes being forced on him by injuries. The same XV started every match in the 1990 Grand Slam season. Now it seems that Vern Cotter has settled on his best team. Only Alex Dunbar of the injured players would be sure to have been selected if fit. Cotter has, of course, a much smaller pool to fish in than Eddie Jones, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. Competition for places is fine, but having a host of choices can muddle the coach’s brain.

Matches are not necessarily won up front, but they are usually lost by a team that doesn’t achieve at least parity at the set scrum, the line-out and the breakdown. The Scottish scrum was excellent in the World Cup, while England’s wobbled, even crumbled. The return of Dylan Hartley in place of Tom Youngs will improve England there, but the Scotland front-row of Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and Willem Nel is experienced, powerful and skilful. Of course, as we all know, the set scrum is at the mercy of the referee’s interpretation; nevertheless… As for the line-out, the Gray 
brothers and David Denton should be a match for anyone.

Then we may have an advantage at the breakdown, for Vern Cotter has followed the Australian example and picked two genuine 7s in Hardie and John Barclay, one to hit, one to forage, while neither of the English flankers, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, is a true openside, though both are powerful ball-carriers. Still, more often than not, the side that controls the breakdown controls the flow of play.

For years, Scotland have often had as much possession and territory as their opponents, but failed to score tries. Much has been made the past few days of our sorry try-scoring record in Calcutta Cup matches at Murrayfield – curiously, we’ve found it easier to score tries at Twickenham. But now we have a back division that isn’t as wary of the try-line as a vampire is of garlic. Tommy Seymour has 11 tries in 22 matches, young Mark Bennett six in 13, Stuart Hogg 9 in 38, while all the other backs have scored international tries. A total of 39 tries by members of the back division in 187 games may not be very impressive by All Blacks standards, but it’s a deal better than we’re used to.

The defence is more worrying. In the World Cup we conceded too many tries, too easily, not only to Australia and South Africa, but also to Samoa, Japan and the USA. Taking the attitude – you score two, we’ll score three – is no doubt fine, but it is better still to prevent the opposition from scoring any.

Then, even more irritating and disheartening is our persistent and inexplicable failure to deal competently with the kick-off and restarts. This usually seems to result from lapses in concentration rather than technical incompetence. But, whatever the reason, it almost always means trouble.

We must cut down on the penalty count. Young Owen Farrell is at least as good a goal-kicker as there is in the Six Nations, capable of kicking a goal from anywhere in the opposition half. Alternatively, George Ford will put the ball into touch deep in the 22 to enable his forwards to set the driving maul in motion. The sight of the England forwards strolling to a five-metre line-out on their own throw is enough to make Scottish supporters cover their eyes, as they quake with apprehension.

So there’s a lot that can go wrong, horribly wrong. Nevertheless, this might just be the day when everything comes right for Cotter’s men.

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